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Berger - Modern Identity_ Crisis and Continuity

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Peter L. Berger “Modern Identity: Crisis and Continuity” in: Wilton S. Dillon (ed.) The Cultural Drama: Modern Identities and Social Ferment, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974, pp. 158-181
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  Modern identity: Crisis and Continuity Peter     L.   Berger Rutgers University Sociologist of religion, humanist, and Lutheran layman. Extensive teaching in the United States and Germany. Professor, Rutgers University Graduate School, since 1970. Past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and resident member of the Council on Foreign Relations since 1971. Author of    The Noise of Solemn Assemblies (1961),  The Precarious Vision (1961),  Invitation to Sociology (1963),  The Social Construction of Reality (with Thomas Luckmann, 1966),  The Sacred Canopy —  Elements of a Sociological Religion (1967),  A Rumor of Angels — Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (1969),  The Homeless Mind — Modernization and Consciousness (with Brigitte Berger and Hansfried Kellner, 1973). - 15 8 -   Recently, moved by the desire to escape the New York Times, I started to reread Thucydides' Great War.  The escapist mo-tive, as I should have known, was emphatically frustrated. Instead, I was plunged right back into just the sort of relevant material that I had wanted to get away from —  down to Pericles expounding the domino theory to the Athenian assembly prior to its declaration of war against Sparta and, after the desecration of the Hermes statues on the eve of the expedition to Sicily, the great patriotic purge that only by an oversight failed to be called the Honor Athens campaign. In the light of these disagreeable relevancies I returned, with more discomfort than on previous occasions, to the famous passage in Thucydides' own introduction to his book. I quote in Rex Warner's translation: It will be enough for me ... if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. Why the discomfort? In the event, to be sure, because of my frustrated escapism. There is also, however, a theoretical discomfort, It is the discomfort felt upon encountering a viewpoint that flies directly in the face of one of the most cherished notions of modernity — that of the ever-changing, ever-innovating character of historical reality — a notion con- - 15 9   -  - 160 - ceived in the secularization of biblical eschatology, born in the revolutionary turmoil of the modern era, theoretically baptized by Hegel, and today part and parcel of the cognitive instrumentarium of almost everyone from Barry Goldwater to the New Left intelligentsia. I like to think that my own Weltanschauung   is something less than completely modern, yet my modernity reveals itself in the discomfort I, too, feel upon being told that, when all is said and done, nothing in history is really new. On top of that, I am, as it were, pro-fessionally obligated to be uncomfortable with such a notion. Let me repeat the key phrase in the passage from Thucydides: “Human nature being what it is.”   A moment's reflection about this statement is liable to make any sociologist acutely nervous, as it seems to threaten the very foundations of his discipline. Historians, of course, feel differently about this. Except for those contaminated by too much interdisciplinary contact with the social sciences, historians generally react with positive glee to any suggestion that, say, contemporary America is just like Periclean Athens — plus a couple of minor addenda, such as helicopters and television. Sociologists, by contrast, have a deep vested interest in the minor addenda. Their entire professional ideology leads them to the position that the addenda of modernity constitute startling nova,  profound transformations in the very texture of human existence and human consciousness. Spiritually, almost all sociologists are Hegelians, in that they tend to look upon human nature either as a myth or as itself the product of socio-historical processes. This basic discrepancy in viewpoint between historians and sociologists is likely to come to the fore very quickly in any discussion of the present topic. The sociologist is likely to take the so-called identity crisis of our time with deadly seriousness and to seek explanations in terms of this or that alleged novum   of modernity (television, if not helicopters, being a case in point). The historian, on the other hand, is apt to fish out some ancient text (how   ancient, of course, will depend on his subspecialty), which is supposed to demonstrate conclusively that all of this has happened before in very much the same way.  - 161 - Who is right? Thucydides or Hegel? Sociologists are also known for a tendency to make rash judgments — I would have to be not only rash but downright deranged were I to suggest that I can resolve this question here (or, for that matter, elsewhere). A good case can be made for the statement that modern thought has discovered history (and thus society) as against   nature — a discovery contained in Giovanni Battista Vico's classic formulation of the difference between history and nature (we have made the former, but not the latter). But it would be rash indeed to maintain that modern thought has also discovered just where the one ends and the other begins. The only sane attitude in these matters is one of great caution. I would like to approach the present topic in such an attitude of caution, thus disappointing from the beginning all those who expect the sociologist to engage in fiery culture-prophecy. There can be no doubt that what is currently called the crisis of modern identity is a real phenomenon — minimally real in the sense of W. I. Thomas, that anything defined by people as real is   real in its consequences. All I can do, then, is to look at this phenomenon in the perspective of sociology and to reflect, however tentatively, as to which of its elements are genuinely new and which are in continuity with the past. Permit me to begin on a fairly abstract theoretical level: What, in the perspective of sociology, is identity as a phe-nomenon? I believe I am correct in thinking that the current vogue of the concept of identity, and of various theories about its alleged permutations, was begun by Erik Erikson. This is not the place for a discussion of Erikson's highly intriguing work, but it should be emphasized that Erikson's theoretical frame of reference comes from psychoanalysis rather than from any social science. I don't think that this frame of reference can simply be taken over by the sociologist. Minimally, it will have to be considerably modified in order to be useful for purposes of sociological analysis; maximally (which is my preference), the sociologist will try to generate his own frame of reference for the phenomena in question, an enterprise for which the conceptual tools are available in a tradition of sociologically oriented psy-
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